As anyone following the campaign rhetoric of Barack Obama and his supporters will have noticed, this has been a season for “repairing the world.” It is also a time, then, for reflecting on the course of an ancient Hebrew expression that is uttered three times a day in their prayers by religiously observant Jews; that plays a minor but interesting role in talmudic discourse; that was transformed into an important concept of Jewish mysticism in the late Middle Ages; that has become a buzz phrase of American Jewish liberalism; and that occurs in close to a quarter of the 40 short essays by a group of American Jewish intellectuals and social activists, all on the Left, appearing in a new book called Righteous Indignation.*
Among the topics dealt with by these essays are: “Can Social Justice Save The American Jewish Soul?”; “Rereading Genesis: Human Stewardship of the Earth”; “Toxic Waste and the Talmud”; “Judaism, Oil, and Renewable Energy”; “A Jewish Vision for Economic Justice”; “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: Social Justice and Sexual Values in Judaism”; “Multiracial Jewish Families: A Personal and Political Approach to Justice Politics”; “Imitatio Dei and Shared Space: A Jewish Theological Argument for Sharing the Holy Land”; “Once Again: Genocide In Darfur”; and “‘Silence is Akin to Assent’: Judaism and the War in Iraq.”
The Hebrew expression in question—who does not know it by now?—is tikkun olam. Traditionally, these were words familiar to the most ordinary Jew, since they occur in a slightly altered form in the Aleynu prayer recited at the end of the daily morning, afternoon, and evening services. As translated in the prayer book of the United Synagogue of America, which prefers “perfecting” to “repairing,” the second half of the Aleynu goes:
We therefore hope in Thee, O Lord our God, that we may soon behold the glory of Thy might, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth and when all idolatry will be abolished. We hope for the day when the world will be perfected under the Kingdom of the Almighty [al-ken nekaveh lekha . . . le-taken olam be-malkhut Shaddai] and all mankind will call upon Thy name. . . . May all the inhabitants of the world perceive and know that unto Thee every knee must bend, every tongue vow loyalty. . . . May they all accept the yoke of Thy kingdom and do Thou rule over them speedily and forevermore. For the Kingdom is Thine and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah . . . the Lord shall be King over all the earth; and on that day the Lord shall be One and His name One.
Its final line taken from the prophet Zechariah, this is a grand prayer, a majestic call for messianic redemption and the acceptance by all mankind of the sovereignty of God. It is odd, therefore, that in an essay in Righteous Indignation on “What Does Tikkun Olam Actually Mean?” by Jane Kanarek, assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College in Boston, the Aleynu goes unmentioned. Perhaps this is because discussing it would have obliged Kanarek to reveal that tikkun olam means two quite different things in the Hebrew of antiquity, and that the conflation of them is part of contemporary Jewish liberalism’s distortion of Jewish tradition.
As Kanarek points out, the concept of tikkun olam is invoked, in a variety of situations, “a total of fifteen times” in the Mishnah, the code of rabbinic law that, together with the commentary on it known as the Gemara, makes up the Talmud. The text in which the phrase occurs most frequently is the tractate of Gittin, which deals with divorce law. From this tractate, Kanarek has chosen two illustrations. The first (in my own rather than in Kanarek’s translation) reads:
If a man sends his wife a writ of divorce and then overtakes the bearer of it, or sends him a messenger, saying, “The writ I sent is canceled,” it is canceled. If he reaches his wife before the writ’s bearer, or sends her a messenger, saying, “The writ I sent you is canceled,” then it is also canceled. But if the writ has already been delivered, no cancellation is possible. In former times, the husband could convene a court anywhere to have the cancellation confirmed. But then Rabbi Gamliel the Elder changed this for the sake of [mipnei] tikkun olam.
The discussion of this passage in the Gemara makes clear the reason for Rabbi Gamliel’s ruling. Once upon a time, if a husband who was separated from his wife and living at a distance from her sent her a writ of divorce with a messenger and then changed his mind and sent a second, faster messenger to abort the first’s mission, the divorce was canceled. If, however, the second messenger failed to overtake the first in time and the writ was delivered to the woman, the divorce took effect—unless, that is, the husband had already convened a rabbinical court to declare the divorce null and void. And yet if he had done so, the danger existed that the woman, unaware of the court’s action, might mistakenly believe herself divorced and remarry another man with whom she would live in sin and have illegitimate children. To prevent this from happening, Rabbi Gamliel amended the law, “for the sake of tikkun olam,” to require the husband to convene the court in the wife’s place of residence, thus ensuring that she would know of its decision.
Not all of the cases of tikkun olam in Gittin have to do with divorce. Kanarek’s second illustration is this:
For the sake of tikkun olam, hostages must not be ransomed for more than their normal price. Nor, for the sake of tikkun olam, must hostages be helped to escape.
In this case the principle is that, if a Jew is being held for ransom by highwaymen, pirates, or kidnappers, his family, friends, or community must not pay an exorbitantly high sum to free him even if they can afford it. This is because, while there is no basis in Mosaic law for prohibiting such an action, its effect would be to jack up the price of releasing future hostages and encourage attempts to seize more of them. Similarly, even if it is possible to arrange for a Jewish hostage’s escape, it is forbidden to do so, because the conditions under which other hostages are held will then be worsened to prevent more escapes.
Kanarek comments on this as follows:
In the world of the Talmud, we cannot totally prevent the taking of captives. However, that reality does not imply powerlessness. Rather, existent law must be recalibrated to aim at the formation of a better world. . . . The Mishnah and Talmud help us ask the big structural questions, forcing us to focus on underlying causes of suffering and to address them—and they also remind us that the goal of tikkun olam is not necessarily the world’s perfection. As Pirkei Avot [The Ethics of the Fathers] tells us, “It is not upon you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it.” . . . [T]ikkun olam means Jewish social justice. It means having a large vision of the world as it ought to be, and working through and with the Jewish tradition to achieve that vision.
The Talmud’s approach to the ransoming of hostages is indeed “structural.” But Kanarek glosses rather blithely over the question of suffering. True, reduce the profitability of kidnapping and fewer people will be kidnapped in the long run. In the short run, however, tikkun olam calls for an increase in suffering, since it condemns Jewish hostages to continued imprisonment and enjoins their families and friends, who could free them, to exercise an excruciating self-restraint in the public interest. Indeed, “for the sake of the public interest,” rather than for “the sake of repairing the world,” might be a better translation of the Mishnaic term.
It is odd, too, that in a book devoted entirely to Judaism’s bearing on contemporary social and political issues, Kanarek’s contribution totally ignores the truly impressive relevance of this passage. Hostage-taking, after all, is not some quaint ancient custom that has passed from the world. For the past two years, an Israeli soldier has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza, and two more (if still alive) are being held by Hizballah in Lebanon. All this time, Israel’s government and public have agonizingly debated the price to be paid for their release—a price that has indeed climbed steeply over the years, and that now stands at an exchange rate of hundreds of Palestinian terrorists for every Israeli.
It would thus seem that Israel, in its understandable anxiety to redeem its citizens and relieve the distress of their families, has been unmindful of the sort of tikkun olam spoken of by the Mishnah. One would think, at the very least, that Kanarek would have remarked on this and on how a more frugal policy of paying for the freedom of Israelis with convicted Palestinians, many of whom have returned to terrorism after their release, would be in line with the Mishnah’s recommendation. And yet she is silent.
And so she is also forced to be silent about the contradiction between the prophetic tikkun olam of the Aleynu and the Mishnaic tikkun olam of the rabbis, which embody opposite conceptions of change. One—whose goal is the world’s perfection—is sweepingly utopian and looks forward to a radical transformation in the religious behavior and social relationships of all mankind. The other is cautiously pragmatic and concerned with the management of Jewish reality. (That tikkun olam in the Mishnah involves Jewish reality alone is obvious, since even when universal principles are involved, the rabbis’ ability to enforce them did not extend beyond Jews.) The first tikkun olam is based on the anticipation of a new spiritual consciousness; the second, on the permanence of human nature as we know it.
It can be argued, of course, that the greater and the lesser tikkun olam, as they might be called, are complementary, one expansively setting out the final goal and the other tracing a laborious path to it; the first proclaiming the round sum to be striven for and the second counting out the small change by which this sum might be reached in a pilot project involving a single people. But such harmonization is facile, since tikkun olam as the perfecting of the world and tikkun olam as the public interest of the Jewish people are not always mutually consistent.
To return to the case of hostages, the public interest, as conceived of by the Mishnah, is necessarily imperfect. It involves the difficult task of balancing one set of justified demands against another, the welfare of the community against the happiness or grief of individuals, and it mandates private grief where the public interest requires it. So it is with most laws. They help some by hurting others. It is only in utopia that no one gets hurt at all.
There is a third traditional conception of tikkun olam. This comes from the 16th-century school of Jewish mysticism known as Lurianic Kabbalah, with its great cosmic drama of a world that is quite literally broken and in need of repair from its inception. At the very moment of creation, according to Lurianic theory, a universe designed to be perfect fractured like a faulty pot, and the divine light it was designed to contain leaked out, as it were, into the blackness of chaos. From this darkness, it is the mission of every Jew to retrieve the multitude of fallen sparks that must be restored to their source for all to be made whole again.
In its fashion, the Lurianic tikkun combines aspects of the visionary tikkun of the prayer book and the pragmatic tikkun of the Mishnah. While it calls for mending the entire cosmos, it holds that this must be done incrementally through the efforts of every Jew. These efforts, in Lurianic Kabbalah, are strictly spiritual, involving prayer, religious ritual, and meditation.
It was not, however, the spiritual aspect of the Lurianic tikkun olam but the potential for reinterpreting it politically that appealed to the imagination of Michael Lerner, an ex-student radical of the 1960’s who in 1986 founded a magazine called Tikkun. Under Lerner’s editorship, Tikkun embraced social activism and “progressive” politics, frequently sided against Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, and was largely responsible for transplanting the expression tikkun olam from the esoteric soil of Jewish scholarship and liturgy to the wider field of American Jewish discourse, from which it has propagated itself in the vocabulary of liberal politics and in the campaign oratory of Barack Obama. “Repairing the world” is now as much of a Jewish contribution to the American language as are chutzpah, schmooze, and schmaltz.
And as repairmen—so the 40 essays in Righteous Indignation make clear—Jews have their work cut out for them. There appears to be nothing wrong with this world that Judaism does not command us to fix, and nothing needing fixing about which it does not have something to say.
The environment? “The classical Jewish source on conservation,” we are told by Shana Starobin, a student in environmental management and public policy at Duke University,
is the passage in Deuteronomy that introduces the commandment ba’al tashkhit [sic! it is bal tashkhit] (literally, “do not destroy”), forbidding needless waste and destruction: “When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” . . . The principle of ba’al tashkhit affirms that our consciousness must be directed toward resources great and small, that the earth and its gifts are not ours to destroy.
Toxic waste? The laws of the Talmud, we learn from Jeremy Benstein, associate director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership,
regulate not only injury or harm inflicted by a person or their livestock on another person or their property, but also misuse of the environment as a cause of damages to others. If I dig or uncover a pit in the public domain, I am liable for damages that may ensue. Similarly if I place a jug or barrel (or thorns or broken glass) in a communal place and someone is injured. . . . It is not a far cry from the menace of air pollution and the leaky toxic dumps of our day.
The global AIDS crisis? “The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides,” say Jacob Feinspan and Julia Greenberg of the American Jewish World Service,
wrote that not only are we permitted to break other commandments to save a life, but that if we fail to act, then we ourselves have transgressed. . . . It is an unsettling fact that there are three times as many HIV-positive people in the world as there are Jews. By raising up their collective voices to say “Let our people live,” the HIV-positive community is leading a new Exodus.
Transgenderism and sex change? Elliot Rose Kukla, a formerly female Reform rabbi, informs us that the Talmud has a gender category called the tumtum (in reality, the Talmud’s term for someone born with undeveloped or undifferentiated sexual organs) that provides a “spiritual home” to anyone like himself who “can’t or won’t conform” to “modern binary gender” classifications. The tumtum, Kukla writes, is “a spiritual resource of our tradition.”
And so it goes. Health care, labor unions, public-school education, feminism, abortion rights, gay marriage, globalization, U.S. foreign policy, Darfur: on everything Judaism has a position—and, wondrously, this position just happens to coincide with that of the American liberal Left.
If it is easy to caricature most of the essays in Righteous Indignation, this is because so many of them caricature themselves. They represent the ultimate in that self-indulgent approach, so common in non-Orthodox Jewish circles in the United States today, that treats Jewish tradition not as a body of teachings to be learned from but as one needing to be taught what it is about by those who know better than it does what it should be about. Judaism has value to such Jews to the extent that it is useful, and it is useful to the extent that it can be made to conform to whatever beliefs and opinions they would have even if Judaism had never existed.
This is not to say that Jewish tradition has no position on any of the issues discussed in Righteous Indignation. The most cogent and dispassionate contribution to the book, “A Jewish View of Embryonic Stem Cell Research” by Elliott Dorff, professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, argues persuasively for the halakhic permissibility of such research under certain conditions. Dorff specifies what these conditions are and leaves the reader feeling that tradition has served him as a mentor rather than as a surrogate mother who can be hired to bear any child one wishes. To the extent, moreover, that Dorff’s argument is open to qualification or rebuttal on the basis of traditional sources themselves, any such debate would serve further to illuminate the issues and classical Judaism’s approach to them.
Jeremy Benstein has a point, too. There is a real parallel between talmudic laws of liability and those brought to bear against latter-day polluters, and a more closely argued essay than Benstein’s could have taught us more about this matter.
About other matters, however, it would be stretching things to say that there is a definable Jewish point of view. There is nothing amounting to a coherent approach in Judaism toward protecting or not protecting the natural environment, and Shana Starobin’s ecological exegesis is downright dishonest, since her citation from Deuteronomy deliberately leaves out the verse, “But the trees which you know are not trees for food, you shall destroy and cut them down; and you shall make bulwarks [with them] against the city that makes war with you until it is subdued.” Indeed, if one were to construct an environmental policy on the slender base of Deuteronomy, it would have to be that the Bible sanctions the destruction, for utilitarian ends like making siege fortifications, of whatever in nature is not, like fruit trees, of direct benefit to mankind.
In still other cases, Jewish tradition is unequivocally opposed to the values that the essayists in Righteous Indignation put into its mouth. However many may be the arguments for feminism, the authority of Judaism, which has insisted throughout its history on male dominance and a strict separation of functions between the sexes, is not one of them; just as homosexuality, let alone same-sex marriage, is by any traditional Jewish standard one of the “abominations” that the Aleynu prayer would have removed from the earth. “We must be exegetical warriors,” writes Melissa Weintraub, another contributor to Righteous Indignation. “We must forcefully weave our values out of the fabric of our living traditions.” Forcefully, indeed! To reject a tradition as no longer tenable for one’s times can be a form of respect for it. To coerce it into the service of contemporary causes deeply offensive to it is to treat it with contempt.
“It is critical to recognize how central social justice is to Jewish consciousness,” writes Sidney Schwarz of the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values in Righteous Indignation’s opening essay. He is, of course, right. In Mosaic law, in biblical prophecy, and in rabbinic jurisprudence alike, the idea that God is well-served by decent and equitable relations among human beings is basic. This is not an invention of American Jewish liberalism, nor of the German Reform and Jewish socialist movements that preceded it and bequeathed to it many of their attitudes.
But there are different conceptions of what social justice is and requires, within Judaism no less than outside of it. In stating that the “prophetic legacy is why the Jewish people were put on this earth . . . to be agents for the repair of the entire world,” Schwarz dismisses most of post-biblical Jewish history. For, to a great extent, rabbinic Judaism, though it never openly admitted as much, developed as a means of containing and redirecting the prophetic legacy, whose grand vision of a utopian tikkun olam had brought the Jewish people to the verge of ruin.
Rabbinic Judaism emerges into the light of history toward the end of the period of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in the great revolt against Rome of 67-70 C.E. This revolt, and the similarly failed Bar-Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 C.E., were Jewish catastrophes of a magnitude that was not to be repeated until the Holocaust. When they were over, the Jews of Palestine had lost their temple, their last vestiges of independence, hundreds of thousands of lives, and a large number of their homes and villages, and had been banished from Jerusalem, to which they would not return in significant numbers for nearly two millennia.
The root cause of this was precisely the prophetic legacy. It was the apocalyptic messianism of the biblical prophets, particularly the later ones, that encouraged the Jews of Palestine to embark on two courageous but hopeless adventures that challenged the military might of the Roman Empire. The same Zechariah whose words conclude the Aleynu, and who cried out in the name of social justice, “Execute true judgment, show mercy and compassion every man to his brother, oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor,” envisioned a great military battle in Jerusalem between Jews and Gentiles in which “the Lord will smite all the people who have fought against Jerusalem,” after which “it shall come to pass that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts.” The great battle he foresaw indeed took place, but God did not smite the Roman legions.
The rabbis of the period after the destruction of the Temple and the collapse of the Bar-Kokhba rebellion had to rally a beaten and demoralized people. Jewish messianism—the greater tikkun olam—had failed on a colossal scale. It was a rabbinic insight to grasp that such a people did not need more and better visions, as Jane Kanarek thinks it does today. It needed laws, organization, authority, routines, a regulating system of halakha (a literal translation of which might be “a way of doing things”) to repair the destruction wrought by the anarchy of dreams. It needed the lesser tikkun olam, a conception of the public interest.
And this was necessarily a conception of the Jewish public interest. Classical rabbinic thought represents a turning-away not only from utopian thinking about humanity but from the notion that it is the Jews’ task to help save humanity—except, that is, insofar as it is their task to build a society that the rest of humanity might some day wish to emulate.
In this, it must be said, the rabbis had key sections of the Bible on their side. When one reads the Five Books of Moses, one is struck by how God changes His mind in them. Up to the time of the Flood, He chooses to work with the entire human race and fails. It is too ambitious a project even for Him. The conclusion He draws is that it is better to start again and to start small, and slowly to expand from there on firm foundations: first Noah, then Abraham, then the other Patriarchs, then Jacob’s twelve sons, then the twelve tribes of Israel, then the giving to them of a Law at Sinai that they will need to take their time learning to understand and obey.
Meanwhile, the Pentateuch implies, humanity can wait. This is very much the attitude of normative rabbinic Judaism—but not of the prophets, who have no patience with an unredeemed world.
Of course, no period of exilic Jewish history, even the most rabbinically normative, has ever lacked messianic expectancy. Throughout the Exile, rabbinic pragmatism and prophetic utopianism existed side by side in a state of collaborative tension: the one the reality, the other the dream; the first entailing the practical regulation of the innumerable contradictions of daily life, the second representing the faith in a future in which all contradictions would be resolved. This collaboration was only disrupted in times of historical crisis in which, in what is known in Hebrew as d’hikat ha-ketz, “the forcing of the end,” the “some day” of normative Judaism became the “now” of messianic ferment and the dream rose up to challenge the reality.
This happened when Christianity broke away from Judaism. It happened again in the great messianic eruption of the Lurianically-inspired Sabbatian movement of the mid-17th century—the debacle of which, while leading to the rabbinic repression of messianism in Jewish life, only heightened its unconscious pressures. Ultimately, for many modern Jews, these found their release in the two secular movements of revolutionary socialism and Zionism. The course run by the former in Soviet Russia and elsewhere needs no comment: determined to bring about heaven on earth, it created a hell. Yet its logic was impeccable: men are perfectible; if they refuse to be perfected, that is their own fault; hence, they must be whipped until they stop refusing.
As for Zionism, its fate still hangs in the balance. Early secular Zionism had a strong utopian streak. Many Jews raised in observant homes turned to it after losing their religious faith because it reproduced for them, in secular form, the templates of Jewish thought and feeling that they knew from the prayer book and the synagogue, foremost among them the hope for messianic deliverance; in the land of Israel, they believed, they would construct the perfect society that Jews living under Gentile yoke in the Diaspora could not achieve.
Yet the collapse in secular Israel of this belief has been accompanied by a new historical outbreak, in some of the ranks of the settler movement and its supporters, of the religious messianism of which secular Zionism was a sublimation—an outbreak that, if it is not successfully subdued, could lead to consequences as fateful as did the two uprisings against Rome. Threatened on the secular Left by the cynicism and nihilism that follow the failure of all utopian projects, Israel is today threatened on the religious Right by a belief like Zechariah’s that God will come to its rescue no matter how much it disregards the international community or deepens its entanglement with a Palestinian people from whom it needs to extricate itself. Its future depends on the same ability to re-channel the greater tikkun olam of Redemption into the lesser tikkun olam of the Jewish public interest that the rabbis set to work on articulating 2,000 years ago.
The Jewish public interest is not a concept that plays a role in any of the 40 essays in Righteous Indignation. Just as the authors of these essays take almost no interest in the state of Israel, apart from chiding it for its various alleged faults of racism, religious intolerance, militarism, and so forth, so they take almost no interest in the American Jewish community except insofar as it is prepared to act outside of itself. They want world repair—and they want it now. An end to environmental exploitation! An end to economic injustice! An end to sexual inequality! An end to war! And since the end will not come of itself, let Jews go out into the world and force it.
What is entirely missing from the book and its righteously indignant authors is the slightest sense of the world’s complexity or of the fact that repairing almost anything can involve breaking something else. Yes, it is possible to reduce global warming significantly—but only at the cost of reducing standards of living around the world, including those of the poor. It is possible to let homosexuals marry and raise children like heterosexuals—but only by making heterosexuals wonder what is the point of marrying and raising children. It is possible not to go to war—but only by condemning the people of Iraq to life under a barbaric and aggressive dictatorship, and by continuing to condemn the people of Darfur to an indescribable misery that only military force can put an end to. There are few cost-free solutions to anything.
This is something that those who bandy the phrase tikkun olam might be expected to be aware of. They might, one would think, have learned something from Hillel the Elder.
In the same Mishnah of Gittin, there is brief mention of the earliest of rabbinic rulings for the sake of tikkun olam. This is the one that has come to be known as the pruzbul of Hillel the Elder. Hillel lived while the Temple was still standing, and pruzbul is the Hebrew form of the Greek words pros boulè, “at the office of the counsel of law.” An explanation of the term is found in the Mishnah of Shevi’it that deals with the seventh year of the septennial cycle—a year in which the Jewish farmer in the land of Israel was commanded by the Bible to let his land lie fallow and the Jewish creditor to cancel or release all debts.
The biblical statute, found in Deuteronomy, says:
And this is the manner of the release. Every creditor that lends whatsoever unto his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor or of his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release.
The pros boulè or pruzbul that Hillel the Elder ordained was a way of circumventing this cancellation of debt. As described in Shevi’it, the technique involved a procedure whereby the creditor would turn to a court of rabbinical judges and authorize it to collect his debt for him after the seventh year had passed. The court could do this without technically violating the biblical commandment because the latter required the creditor, personally, to cancel the debt; a third party to which the collection had been entrusted would not be so constrained. In this fashion, the biblical law was effectively nullified.
What made Hillel the Elder do this? The Mishnah of Shevi’it tells us: “When he saw that Jews were not lending each other money, and were thus violating the commandment, ‘Beware there not be a thought in your wicked heart,’ he enacted the pruzbul.” The “commandment” referred to here comes from the same passage in Deuteronomy and goes, in full:
Beware that there not be a thought in your wicked heart saying, the seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nought, and he cry unto the Lord against you, and it be a sin unto you.
In other words, foreseeing that wealthy individuals would be reluctant to lend their money to the poor as the seventh year approached, the Bible commanded them to lend it anyway. Yet Hillel, seeing that the wealthy were disregarding this injunction and depriving the poor of badly needed loans, changed the biblical law to ensure that money would be lent by providing a way of recovering it.
This was a watershed in the evolution of Judaism. The biblical law of debt-cancellation is motivated by a deep concern, which runs through the Mosaic code and the prophets, for the poor, who are to be periodically forgiven by their creditors in order to prevent their becoming hopelessly mired in debt. One could not imagine a more utopian piece of social legislation. But this, as Hillel the Elder realized, was precisely the problem with it: the regulation was having the paradoxical consequence of only making life for the poor harder by preventing them from borrowing at all.
It is not irrelevant to mention in this context that Hillel knew what poverty was. The story is told of him in the Talmud that once, as a young man, unable to pay the watchman who admitted him for a fee to the study house in which the great sages Shemaiah and Avtalion were teaching, he climbed onto the roof to listen to their lesson through the roof beams and nearly froze to death when he was buried there by a snowstorm.
Hillel was thus well aware of the anguish of the man beset by worry that he has to return a loan he does not have the means to make good on, and of how miraculous a deliverance it would be if, at the last moment, the seventh year would arrive and relieve that man of his distress. He could not lightly have undertaken to abolish the prospect of such deliverance, and he certainly must have realized that his pruzbul, enabling the collection of a debt after the seventh year, would cause some proponents of social justice to find him morally callous.
The words in Gittin, “Hillel enacted a pruzbul for the sake of tikkun olam,” do not compare in sublimity with the prophet Isaiah’s declaration, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.” And yet they reflect no less a passionate caring for the Jewish people. So should a concern for the Jewish public interest today.
* The subtitle is “A Jewish Call for Justice.” Jewish Lights, 351 pp., $24.99.